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Special Report
Last Updated: 08/11/2009
Challenges to Women's Full Participation in Cambodian Society
Virak Thun

In Cambodia, women make important and tangible contributions to the social, political, and economic development of the country. However, like many other parts of the world, such contributions are largely unacknowledged and are not given adequate attention, and Cambodian women are often under-represented, which leads to their passive participation and insufficient empowerment in the community and society at large.

Accordingly, this article touches upon four key challenges to Cambodian women’s participation in social, political, and economic affairs, including: (1) deep-rooted tradition, cultural stereotypes, and social attitudes; (2) gender-biased media and stereotype of Khmer literature; (3) poverty; and (4) high illiteracy. These challenges indicate the reasons why there is lack of women’s dynamic involvement in all affairs, which hinders the development of democratic governance and peace-building in the nation. Effective recommendations, dealing with the challenges, are highlighted before the article comes to a conclusion.

I. Introduction

In Cambodia, the year 1993 marked the end of the special operation called “the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia”, commonly known as “UNTAC”. This operation was founded and implemented in the country since 1991 by the United Nations in order to “supervise the ceasefire, the end of foreign military assistance …; regroup, canton and disarm all armed forces of the Cambodian parties …; control and supervise … the administrative structures …; ensure and respect of human rights; and organize and conduct free and fair elections” (United Nations, 2003). However, after its withdrawal, UNTAC seemed not to attain all its missions and goals satisfactorily, and several social, political, and economic problems started to emerge and remain unresolved in the present time. Deep-rooted corruption, ineffective budgetary planning and management for public sector services, poor law enforcement and lawlessness, lack of political security, and widespread human rights abuses or social violence are just some examples to be mentioned here.

If an in-depth analysis is done, we are able to see that the above-mentioned issues are likely to be caused by lack of Cambodian women’s participation in social, political, and economic spheres. This gender-blind strategy continues to be implemented at all levels, especially at a national level, which leads to an unclear and hopeless sign of the promotion of democratic governance and peace-building in the country.

Like many other developing countries in the world, Cambodia has been criticized by this lack of women’s involvement or women’s low representation at all levels and in all higher positions. Cambodian people and the international community have seen no much progress or improvement towards the gender balance and equity even though the Cambodian government has encouraged women to participate actively and constructively in the social, political, and economic affairs. Ledgerwood (1996) reveals the gender inequality in Cambodia after the 1993 elections that: “[a]lthough women were 58 percent of voters, they were only 5 percent of the candidates put forward by political parties. Only five women won seats in the National Assembly … There were only five female under-secretaries of state and no female provincial governors” (p. 6). Bouta, Frerks, and Bannon (2005) indicate a similar statistic of Cambodian women’s passive political participation at a national level that: “[f]ive women were elected to the National Assembly in Cambodia, representing only 6 percent of elected representatives” (p. 56). Moreover, UNFPA (2005) acknowledges that: “Cambodia's Gender Empowerment Measure is among the lowest in Asia, reflecting low female representation in parliament, and at all levels of government ... only 8% of the commune councillors, 16% of National Assembly members and 18% of Senate members are women” (p. 13). Yip (2007) also emphasizes on the deficiency in Cambodian women’s participation at a local community level that: “[i]n the first-ever commune council elections held in 2002, only 9% of the total number of candidates who ran were women; they managed to secure 951 out of 11,257 commune council seats, increasing the number of women commune chiefs by nearly tenfold.”

All the aforesaid statistics have equipped us with an insightful view of the fact that Cambodian women have been under-represented, particularly at a national level, in the last several years. Because this low representation of women has hindered the emergence of democratic governance and peace-building in the nation, it is very important to examine closely the key challenges to social, political, and economic participation of Cambodian women and to provide recommendations that can encourage their engagement in all affairs and that can also correspond to the challenges effectively.

II. Major Challenges to Cambodian Women’s Dynamic Participation

In general, there have been several factors or challenges that have strongly prevented women from engaging actively in democratic governance and peace-building in Cambodia. However, only four main challenges to active participation of Cambodian women in all spheres enjoy greater attention and are highlighted here.

2.1. Deep-Rooted Tradition, Cultural Stereotypes, and Social Attitudes

First of all, the most serious obstacle or challenge to Cambodian women’s active engagement at all levels is the tradition as well as cultural and social perspectives on gender roles and responsibilities between men and women. For instance, women should not or cannot become the military offers or political decision-makers since these roles or social statuses have been perceived as men’s. In the patriarchal structure of Cambodian society, its tradition, cultural stereotypes, and social attitudes have considered women to be inferior, subordinate, or of lower status, and thus justified social and political exclusion and discriminatory treatment against women in the community and society at large. As a result, women have experienced, throughout their life time, the gender imbalance and inequality and have not enjoyed having access to public services such as education or health and exercising their rights to participate in the social, political, and economic affairs. Porter (2003) brings up people’s false perception of women that: “… generally women lack experience in political leadership and in diplomatic settings, they are not culturally accepted authority figures able to represent constituents ...” (p. 250). McGrew, Frieson, and Chan (2004) also agree that: “[t]here is still a prevailing belief in the culture that women are more gentle and submissive than men and should maintain responsibility for household expenditures and childcare.”

Within this cultural and traditional framework and social constructs, the most challenging task facing the Cambodian government and other non-state actors, including civil society and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), is to gradually eliminate gender biases and gender-based discrimination against women, and enhance women’s inclusion and equal representation in any national policy planning and decision-making of the government as well as respects for women’s roles and contributions to the development of Cambodia. Porter (2003) raises a very good concern that: “... the biggest difficulty lies in breaking down the cultural prejudices about women that underlie discriminatory practices, such as their exclusion from political decision-making” (p. 251).

2.2. Gender-Biased Media and Stereotype of Khmer Literature

Practically speaking, media and Khmer literature play a constructive role in disseminating information, influencing mindset of Cambodian people, and shaping their social and cultural firm beliefs in what roles and responsibilities men and women should or must take. Sadly enough, however, the media (e.g. soap operas on radio or movies on national television) and Khmer literature, integrated in the curriculum of the formal educational system, are too often gender-biased and male-dominant. Simply put, men or male characters are viewed as superior, decisive, intelligent, or brave, and they are expected to play dominant roles as military leaders or peace negotiators, while women or female characters are perceived as inferior, submissive, physically weak, or emotional, and their common role is to be housewives, staying at home and looking after children.

Such gender-biased media and stereotype of Khmer literature have produced a social and traditional image of male and female characteristics as well as gender roles and have been taken for granted in the Cambodian real-world context for years. Even worse, the media and Khmer literature has empowered men, downgraded women’s real abilities and tangible contributions to democratic governance and peace-building, and also discouraged women to take part in promoting social development, political stability, and economic growth. Consequently, lack of Cambodian women’s engagement in all spheres is in place and remains unanswered.

2.3. Poverty

World Food Programme (WFP, 2009) asserts that: “[n]otwithstanding recent socio-economic progress, Cambodia remains one of the poorest countries in Asia with 35 percent of the population living below the poverty line, and between 15 and 20 percent in extreme poverty.” UNFPA (2005) also explicitly explains that: “[p]overty ... is aggravated by very limited sources of growth, few linkages to the domestic economy, limited access to social services, landlessness, environmental degradation, and a lack of genuine participatory processes” (p. 7). With this poverty and impoverished living conditions, Cambodian citizens, especially women, are not interested in any social and political involvement, and women’s priority task is to earn a living for their daily survival and to deal with their family crises or economic restrictions they are facing. Additionally, they are also busy doing their day-to-day household choirs without having spare time and willingness to think about getting involved in social and political life and helping their community and society as a whole. The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (n.d.) points out that: “[p]overty falls particularly heavily on women, especially on female heads of households. Cambodian women do not have enough time to focus on political affairs in the face of heavy economic and family burdens (As cited in Cecil and Rasmussen, 2009)”.

As a result, deficiency in Cambodian women’s participation arises out of poverty, simply meaning that poverty deters women from living their active social and political life. With the absence of this social and political engagement, their grievances and concerns are not heard by the decision-makers or political leaders of the country, who always tend to neglect women’s voice in their policy planning or decision-making and who doubt the level of women’s knowledge, skills, and contributions towards the social, political, and economic development of the country.

2.4. High Illiteracy of Cambodian Women

It is broadly acknowledged that high illiteracy, largely caused by poverty, makes Cambodian women unqualified for any social and political positions, and thus blocks their participation in public life. It is worth noting that even though nearly equal number of boys and girls enter primary school, female dropout rate is higher than male one, particularly when girls pursue their secondary and higher education. “One key constraint to women’s participation in civil service is the low number of girls and women in upper secondary and tertiary education. Currently only 0.2 percent of women in the total labor force have a university degree. Women constitute 20% of all university graduates” (Yip, 2007).

It should be further noticed that the unexpectedly high dropout rate of Cambodian girls is due to the fact that a family will send a son rather than a daughter to school, especially when they are financially poor or when they cannot afford both of them to be formally educated at school. This has been widely practiced in the nation and has become a social pattern or a cultural norm that men have been given greater attention and priority since they have been perceived to be physically and mentally stronger, more intelligent, or more decisive. Another reason for the girls’ high dropout rate is that although nine years of basic education is free for all in the country, paying for school fees, study materials and textbooks, and clothes, and giving their children some money for daily spending at school are one of the costly expenses that a family has to face if they want to have their children educated in the formal educational system. Therefore, when their income is limited, they have to force themselves to stop sending their kids, especially girls, to go to school.

III. Suggestions

To cope with the above-mentioned challenges successfully, the following recommendations should not be overlooked or ignored.

Firstly, the Cambodian government should widen or broaden its understanding and support for gender mainstreaming at all levels, empower women, and gradually transform deep-seated traditional and cultural stereotypes as well as social attitudes towards gender roles, justice, and equality. We all should also be aware that even though the empowerment of women and the transformation of such stereotypes and attitudes are of a slow process and immediate change cannot be seen in a short period of time, they enhance Cambodian women’s capacity-building and leadership that are important assets for the development of the country. Furthermore, the government should respect and implement the United Nations Resolution 1325 that:

“… calls on the Security Council, the Secretary-General, member nations, and non-state actors to act in four inter-related areas: increasing the participation of women in decision-making and peace processes; adopting gender perspectives and training in peacekeeping; protecting women; and gender mainstreaming in UN reporting and implementation mechanisms ...” (Porter, 2003).

Secondly, to deal with the gender-biased media and stereotype of Khmer literature, the Cambodian government should regulate the media portrayal and revise Khmer literature to draw more attention of Cambodian people to gender balance, justice and equity as well as to place greater emphasis on a positive view of women. The government should also use the media to raise public awareness of women’s considerable, but unrecognized, contributions to the community and society.

Lastly, but importantly, donor countries and the international community should provide the Cambodian government with their conditional foreign aid, both financial and technical, together with concrete and realistic framework for how aid should be administered and delivered, to ensure poverty alleviation and to increase more opportunities for Cambodian girls and women in secondary and tertiary education. Moreover, they should cooperate with and increasingly fund other non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which help fight against poverty and enhance capacity-building of women in the country. A very good example of such NGOs is Women for Prosperity (WFP).

“… Women for Prosperity (WFP), a leading Khmer women’s organization which has previously been funded by The Asia Foundation, The National Democratic Institute (NDI), and USAID, … encourages women nationwide to stand for office and trains them in running effective campaigns. In 2002, 65 percent of the women elected had received training provided by a women’s professional support network developed by WFP” (Yip, 2007).

By so doing, the donor nations and the international community can play a functional and constructive role in promoting Cambodian women’s social, political, and economic participation that is the fabric of democratic governance and peace-building.

IV. Conclusion

In short, there are four key challenges to women’s engagement in social, political, and economic work, which block the road to democratic governance and peace-building in Cambodia. Strengthening women’s participation will not be effective and achievable if the four challenges are not addressed and tackled well, and if the aforesaid suggestions, which involve all the stakeholders, namely the Cambodian government, the donor nations, the international community, and NGOs, are not put into practice. A final note of caution should also be brought up in this conclusion that the whole idea of ensuring women’s involvement and contributions should not be misinterpreted as women’s desire for powerful control or domination over men and resources, but it should be positively portrayed as their genuine commitment to take part in helping develop the community and the society at large.


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Ledgerwood, J. (1996). Gender symbolism and culture change: Viewing the virtuous woman in the Khmer story ‘Mea Yoeng’. In M. Ebihara, C. A. Mortland, and J. Ledgerwood (Eds.), Cambodian culture since 1975: Homeland and exile, pp. 119-128. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

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Virak Thun is currently a dual-campus MA student at the United Nations mandated University for Peace in the major of International Peace Studies.